Raise your hand if you consider General Motors a green car manufacturer. For as long as anyone can remember, the automaker behind the Camaro, the Suburban, the Escalade, and the Silverado specialized in a particular brand of American automobiles: large and powerful, fuel economy be damned. Then 2015 happened. With the debut of a long-range electric vehicle, a full hybrid sedan, and upgrades to its flagship plug-in, GM dramatically shifted gears on fuel economy through its Chevy line, giving the automaker the tools to lead in the green car segment. At the 2015 New York Auto Show, GM unveiled its first legitimate hybrid in the midsize sedan class with the 2016 Malibu promising 48 miles per gallon in city driving. With a single stroke, it put Chevy within spitting distance of the Toyota Prius and other industry leaders with a car that got style upgrades to boot. Yet that was merely the latest in a series of headline moves.
The biggest surprise came with the debut of the Chevrolet Bolt EV at the Detroit Auto Show in January. Promising to deliver 200 miles of electric range at a price point below $40,000, GM could brag it shocked the world without exaggerating in the slightest. It beat Tesla to the punch with the first car that could be a mainstream electric vehicle. GM also brought to Detroit the upgraded Chevy Volt, the plug-in hybrid that has carried the torch for the automaker in the green car space. The 2016 Volt will push the segment-leading range to 50 miles on electricity. Zero emissions and impressive economy suddenly were wearing the gold bowtie emblem. Prior to these announcements, the General has looked so far behind in green cars one could say it approached punch-line status. From the lack of a standard hybrid sedan to the gussied up Volt sold as an electric Cadillac, there was nothing to speak of when looking for encouragement from GM in a segment critical to fuel economy standards and the overarching effort to lower emissions.
It didn’t have to be this way. Checking on the EPA’s annual fuel economy count, GM routinely places at or near the bottom. Toyota, the world leader in sales volume, has shown how success can be green. In New York, Toyota unveiled the eighth hybrid in its vehicle lineup. On the domestic scene, Ford has both plug-in and standard hybrids available for the C-Max and midsize Fusion along with the all-electric Focus that sells across the country (as opposed to compliance cars relegated solely to California). Aside from the “mild hybrid” eAssist Buicks and the Spark compliance EV out West, GM had put its full green car stock in the Chevrolet Volt. For what it’s worth, Volt has earned the automaker credit as one of the early entries in long-range plug-ins (or, depending on your view, EVs with ICE range extenders). To date, no plug-in has exceeded the Volt’s 38 miles of electric range. GM even used the same platform to introduce the first electric Cadillac, the ill-fated ELR. None of these cars has made it dealerships, so the green car shift is still a promise from General Motors as of the second quarter in 2015. Is it possible the automaker will soon be known as a leader in hybrids and electric vehicles? Stranger things have happened, but the next generation may grow up seeing GM as a green car pioneer.Raise your hand if you saw that coming.